The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?
The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.
Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.
With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!
Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.
I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.
I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.
Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.
As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.
With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.
That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!
The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?
A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.
From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!
With the Skydive Dubai desert dropzone closed for the scorching summer months and being a relative fledgling in the sport with insufficient jumps to be a Palm-bird I had to consider dropzones further afield in order to obtain my freefall fix. Yes, skydiving, as anyone who does it for fun will confess, is an addiction. A powerful one at that. The lure of open skies and thousands of feet of void to flip, slide, track and fly through is a tough one to resist.
Cue the search for potential skydiving holiday destinations. A few web searches, blogs and a Facebook Messenger conversation later I had my selection: Skydive Balaton, just outside the lakeside town of Siofok in Hungary. The main draw of this dropzone, other than the fact that the pictures and videos I had seen were amazing, was the fact that they jump from helicopters. Not just any heli though. No. Decommissioned military Mi8 choppers! After confirming that the forecast for my intended week was good – Eastern Europe, it seemed, was enjoying a very well timed heatwave – tickets were booked to fly to Budapest, the night shift finished and my bags duly packed. Freefall here I come!
Budapest, which I chose to spend a few days exploring at the start of the trip, was stunning and despite having an unfortunate start to the week after my laptop was stolen I found the city to be charming, full of history and, much like Prague, where I had been fortunate enough to visit with my father a few weeks prior, had incredible views at each and every turn. With my tourist mental checklist satisfied and hire car secured, I left the urban confines of the city and struck out into Hungary’s countryside, driving the one and a half hours out to Lake Balaton and the skydive complex, nestled at the Southern end of the runway.
I was immediately impressed with the set up there. Manifest was well organised, with my first point of contact, Krsytina, running it like the tight ship this place clearly was, and a great system whereby newly registered skydivers were issued a personal card, with this being used to self-manifest electronically, scanning in and collecting a paper ticket from an automatic machine just prior to the jump itself. Seamless, easy and sophisticated. So far so impressed. The complex itself was superbly serviced, with a number of individual hangars that groups of jumpers could make use of to pack and hang out in, a fantastic cafe and outdoor seating with panoramic views over the landing area. Skydive Balaton also has a range of really great accommodation options, from small two bed cabins, to more extensive lodgings, and, of course, the option to camp, with clean, serviceable showers and other facilities. The on-site restaurant, Aviator, served amazingly delicious food and, of course, refreshing local beer! It was easy to see why the centre played host to a number of boogies during the summer, with one actually coming to an end as I arrived.
One of the beauties of the sport is that it is wonderfully social and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to a great group of guys and girls, making the hangar in which they’d spent the boogie week in my base for the few days I was there. Welcoming, generous and fun they made my time jumping there even more awesome than I knew it was going to be and although several of my jumps were solo affairs – great for quiet contemplation and time to enjoy the expansive views of the lake and beyond – I was also able to do several jumps with other people, which is always more fun! The options for fun that come from jumping out of the back of a helicopter are almost limitless. The choice of HOW to exit is just the start. Run out? Fall backwards? Hanging drop? If you can think of it then you can pretty much do it from a helicopter. One of the funniest exits I was able to do was to hang from the rope out the back by my feet before dropping towards the earth below head first. The group jumps were hilarious, from a nine-way ‘Hot Dog’ jump to celebrate Luke’s 200th jump, to the ‘Cat’ jump that I got to do with Chris and Kim, in which we linked end to end before tracking, Chris then dipping his head to the ground causing me to fly up and over, catapulting across the sky! Epic jumps every single one. Even the journey to altitude was magical and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in some kind of epic action movie, sitting with my legs dangling from the rear of this master of the skies as we hurtled across the grass before climbing like a colossal metallic dragonfly and revealing the lake and surrounding country far below.
Talking of generosity, I was extremely grateful to the guys, especially Aaron and Paul, who took the time to help refresh my memory of how to pack my own rig, a skill that I had long neglected in favour of simply paying for pack jobs in Dubai. There was a part of me that didn’t really feel like a complete skydiver not knowing how to pack myself and I ended the weekend confidently packing myself and living to tell the tale! In fact, I am pleased to report that my chute opened seamlessly on every pack that I did on my own, which is always reassuring! That’s another element of this sport I love: there are very few airs and graces, with most of the people you meet being down-to-earth (ironically) sorts with a sense of humour and a generous spirit. We all look out for one another and you’re guaranteed to have friends wherever you choose to go in the world. For that I am super grateful!
The weather gods were certainly smiling on us during our time there, as the day I left the winds picked up. As I drove away, back towards Budapest and my flight home, I had the satisfied grin and the aching muscles that signal a great few days of jumping, already plotting my return. If you’re looking for an amazing dropzone to visit then this is one for your list.
“So this is where the magic happens?” These were my words as I stepped over the threshold of Pedago’s office and got to see for myself where the Smartly online MBA is created and run from, in addition to getting to meet members of the team who are responsible for not only me, but many many others, being able to study for and achieve a top-class MBA education without having to cripple ourselves with life-altering debt.
As I found myself in Washington DC for a speaking engagement I took the opportunity to pop over to Pedago’s Georgetown offices and say hi. I didn’t expect to see that most of the office had opted to stay back late in order to meet me and so was honoured and a little taken aback when I was met outside by Alexie and then welcomed into a conference room where the team were assembled, including more joining by video. Quite the welcome!
Where can you both be present and absent at the exact same time? No, this isn’t a deep philosophical question on the meaning of existence but rather a description of virtual reality (VR), something that I have had a rich helping of over the past month. In my ongoing effort to learn all I can about this hugely exciting and developing technology, and the industry that is blossoming around both it and it’s related cousin, Augmented Reality (AR), I have been doing the conference circuit recently, traveling from Dubai to the US and back again.
The first of the events I attended was iOTX right here in Dubai where I was fortunate enough to be a VIP guest of VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter Chairman, Shujat Mirza, at the VR and AR Start-up zone. Tucked away in a corner of the huge Dubai World Trade Centre, there was an impressive array of local companies working in the fields of VR, AR and related technologies. This included Hyperloop, who were at the time of the conference about to present the results of their feasibility study into building a hyper loop between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, with the projected travel time being a mere 12 minutes! They had a Vive system with them to give people an idea of what it would be like to sit in one of their capsules and showcased the ‘window screens’ that will show passengers a view rather than the dark inside of the tube in which the capsules obviously have to run. The technology behind the hyper loop theory is fascinating, using passive magnets and actuators on the capsule that generate the initial thrust that propels the capsule forward. I really see the value in the technology and look forward to it’s eventual implementation. It makes far more sense for a desert environment such as the Gulf than high speed railway on account of being encased within a tube thus protecting the capsules and mechanisms from the harsh effects of the climate and conditions, including sand, which would play havoc with a standard railway were it to drift and build up on tracks.
Another company present was Candy Lab AR, a US company founded and run by Andrew Couch. Their location-based augmented reality platform uses beacons positioned in sites as diverse as airports, shopping malls etc that enable vendors to deliver real-time AR content to users, thus enhancing their experience in those locations. Great technology and a great team behind it! In addition to being present with a company stand, Andrew was a speaker during the event.
What a great day checking out the VR/AR Association startup zone at #IOTX in Dubai. Great ideas, great products, great people, such as Shujat Mirza (VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter President) & Clyde DeSouza (VR Filmmaker) – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
Whilst small in overall size compared to the VR and AR industry in other parts of the world, especially the US and Europe, there is real potential for VR and AR to take off in the Middle East, especially somewhere with futuristic ambitions like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I am already looking forward to seeing how the industry develops over the next few months and years.
AWE (Augmented World Expo)
Undoubtedly the largest industry show dedicated to both Virtual and Augmented Reality, I was excited to be heading back over to the US and Silicon Valley for the third year in a row, this time as a speaker. I always enjoy visiting the Bay Area and spent a day in San Francisco before heading down to Santa Clara, via both Facebook’s incredible HQ and Stanford University. Due to another speaking commitment the following day I was ultimately only able to attend AWE for the first day and so did not get to experience first-hand the fun and intrigue of the main Expo. There are reports aplenty online about the various companies showcasing their VR and AR wares so I didn’t feel as though i’d missed out on too much. The highlights for me during the first day were:
Seeing how much bigger the event has become, even over the last three years. One could really get a sense of VR and AR starting to be embraced by the mainstream and the energy during the event certainly felt like it had been etched up a notch from the previous year.
Getting to speak. I was one of several speakers who took to the stage on the Life track and thoroughly enjoyed being able to deliver my vision of where I see VR in Veterinary currently standing and where I see it going in the future. I believe I am correct when I say that I might have been the first veterinary surgeon to speak at the event so representing the veterinary profession in such an exciting and rapidly advancing industry was truly an honour.
My talk from the event can be viewed below, with a link to the rest of the AWE presentations being found here.
Checking out Lllama Zoo’s HoloLens dissection experience. Charles and Kevin from the company had made the journey down from Canada and both my friend, Deborah, and I were privileged enough to be given a live demo of their augmented reality canine dissection tool, using the Microsoft HoloLens. With each of us wearing a headset, we were both able to see a high resolution holographic image of a set of lungs and heart floating in midair and move around it viewing it from different angles, remove layers and learn about the specific anatomy of this part of the body. The image quality was superb and I was not aware of there being any flicker or issues with the hologram staying fixed in position. A very compelling demonstration and a real glimpse at the future of anatomy teaching in vet and medical schools.
The day came to what felt like a rapid close and after lugging my suitcase up to the afterparty, which in previous years had always been in the adjacent hotel and was a lot of fun but this year had moved and, well, wasn’t quite the same, I hailed an Uber and hot-footed it up to the airport for my red-eye over to Washington DC and the second of my US VR events, and the third overall.
VR in Healthcare Symposium (VR Voice)
Touching down at Baltimore International airport having not really had any sleep whatsover I duly made my way down to Washington DC on the main commuter train, then transferring to the metro in order to arrive at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, part of George Washington University, by 8.30am. This, combined with the welcome discovery of there being a shower at the school, mercifully, gave me time to refresh from the previous day and the flight over, donning my suit before grabbing some breakfast and getting my head into the right space for another day of talks and discussion about virtual, and augmented, reality.
Organised by Robert Fine, of VR Voice, the one-day VR in Healthcare Symposium brought together several speakers and delegates both working in and interested in the use of spatial computing in healthcare, a much more specifically focused event than AWE and one that my talk was perfectly pitched for. In addition to being a great opportunity for me to introduce both myself and the work already being done in veterinary with VR, the day was a wonderful chance to meet a plethora of people, some already very active in the space, such as Dr Brady Evans, whose company OssoVR trains orthopaedic surgeons using virtual reality, and many who were there to learn about this exciting and rapidly changing technology and it’s application to healthcare.
Whilst my talk itself suffered from some degree of annoying technological hitch, I was still very pleased to be able to present and whilst not as high-brow as that presented by the neurosurgeon before me, it went down well – after all, what’s ultimately not to love about a dog wearing a VR headset?!
In addition to enjoying a day of truly fascinating talks, including seeing how neurosurgeons are using VR to better plan and rehearse complex brain surgery, I finished the day with a win, having my ticket be one of those drawn to receive a Merge VR headset – a really great way to round out the day and kickstart my short break exploring the city itself.
The Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.
I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however, that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Paperwork. Oh The Joy.
I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂 and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.
First Time – Clueless
Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.
As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.
The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.
Everyone says that the beauty and allure of the desert eventually ensnares you and it is perfectly natural to arrive in the Middle East for the first time and imagine that the desert, with it’s seemingly endless, barren landscape of sand dunes and not much else, is completely devoid of any beauty or charm. Spend sufficient time out here, however, and this opinion gradually shifts as you start to notice the features that make the desert such a beguiling environment.
I had heard talk of Liwa, with it’s huge sand dunes, from friends here in Dubai and knew that it was meant to be a particularly stunning part of the Arabian Peninsula, nestled on the edge of the vast area of wilderness that constitutes the Empty Quarter, straddling the border between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. I had imagined a solitary hotel appearing from the sands like a mirage and surrounded by towering dunes – a far cry from the towering glass and concrete that has fast come to define the main cityscapes of this part of the world. A trip to Liwa is simpler than one initially imagines it might be, with this desert oasis town easily reachable by a well serviced highway directly from Abu Dhabi.
Wanting to make the most of one of my post-night shift weeks off I opted to finally head to Liwa in order to see if my imaginings of the place matched the reality and so set about doing some basic research. Liwa is actually an oasis town sitting along the edge of the Rub al’Khali desert, with many farms growing crops including dates, for which it is famous, and is the historical birthplace of the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It is easy to get to from Dubai via a 3 hour drive down the E11 highway, sticking with the same road as it passes Abu Dhabi and heads towards the Saudi border. The only issues one has to contend with during the latter part of this drive include the fact that the road from Abu Dhabi to the turn off towards Liwa is chock-full of lorries, meaning the journey ends up feeling like a high-speeds, high-stakes game of hopscotch as you’re forced to swiftly hop between trucks, narrowly avoiding the constant stream of wannabe Dominic Torettos as they hurtle along the fast lane as though they’re racing the Earth itself, flashing their lights like deranged watchmen. Survive that gauntlet and it is onto the main E45 highway inland towards the town of Madinat Zayed, the last main population centre before Liwa, a further hour away. It is vital to ensure that you have sufficient fuel before moving away from Abu Dhabi, with no fuel stations between the capital and Madinat Zayed.
I opted to stay at the Tilal Liwa Hotel, approximately twenty minutes outside of Madinat Zayed and a short drive inland from the main road, past the camel track and in the same section of desert as the royal desert camp, which I could see clearly in the distance from the hotel itself. A beautiful four-star hotel, it had pretty much everything a weekend desert warrior might need, with an inviting infinity pool overlooking the desert and views of camels and dunes, a fitness centre, a couple of well stocked and pricey bars, and a decent dining options. The list of available activities was also plentiful, from dune bashing and boarding, to camel rides and a desert horse trek. The only activities I really had in mind for the two days I was around were to visit the huge dunes outside Liwa and get some desert running in, both of which I ticked off during the stay.
Early Rise for an Epic Climb
Determined to make the most of my visit I had heard that a trip to the huge dune at Tal Mireb, otherwise known as Moreeb dune, was best at either dusk or dawn, when the light was at it’s most magical. As such I set the alarm for ridiculously early the next morning and headed out in the thick fog towards Liwa. The road from Liwa to the dunes snaked its way through and into the desert, at times forcing me to literally crawl along on account of there being so much thick fog. Eventually I arrived, just as the light was starting to illuminate the sky and the towering presence of Tal Mireb revealed itself. The Liwa festival, during which scores of four-wheel drives power up and down the dune racing one another, had finished just the week before and so there was still plenty of evidence of the event having been staged including, sadly, trash on the sand. With nobody else around I felt like I had the entire area to myself and set off on the lengthy trek to the top of the steep and lofty dune. The effort was certainly worth it, with panoramic views across the surrounding desert the reward and a stunning sunrise to welcome me. Were I someone who could actually sit stationary for five minutes I would have found the experience almost meditative. Once I had drunk in the incredible atmosphere and realising that if I left soon then I could still make it back to the hotel in time for breakfast, I ran down the dune, feeling like a cosmonaut bouncing across the surface of a giant marshmallow, and made the breathtakingly beautiful drive back out the way I came, stopping at several points to immortalise the view with my iPhone.
It is at this point that I reckon images definitely speak louder than words, so feel free to check out the short video I made at the dune.
TOP TIPS for a visit to Liwa & Tal Mireb:
1. Fill up with fuel before leaving Abu Dhabi – the next petrol station is about 160km (1hr 45mins) away in Madinat Zayed with very little other than sand dunes along the way.
2. Book early – there are three main hotels to choose from in the Liwa area: 1. Liwa Hotel, in Liwa itself, which is a three star establishment; 2. Tilal Liwa Hotel, just outside Madinat Zayed; and the Qasr al Sarab desert resort, a five star paradise about 90km, or an hour, outside of Liwa. If a hotel is not your thing and you have the necessary kit then camping in the desert is another option.
3. Visit Tal Mireb at either dusk or dawn – the light as the sun is rising and setting over this vast swathe of desert is breathtaking and well worth the effort it takes to get there. Scaling the dune, which rises over 100m from base to peak, is energy sapping and hot work so giving yourself the helping hand of doing so during the cooler parts of the day is recommended. I found the main advantage of a morning visit was the distinct absence of other people, making it feel as though I had the entire desert to myself.
“Solar Hill is like a religious experience!” With claims like that how could any self-respecting triathlete not want to race Challenge Roth at least once?! I had long been aware of the legend of Roth, Germany, the home of Challenge and one of the longest running races on the calendar, for a number of years, being the stage for multiple incredible records in it’s history and considered by many to be their favorite race ever.
I had attempted to secure a coveted spot for 2015’s race but missed out by seconds – the slots sell out in moments so one has to be ready and waiting online as soon as the site goes live, much like trying to get tickets for a major rock festival! Having learned my lesson and hearing even more tales of how memorable the race was I was determined to have another go, fresh as I was off the back of my inaugural Ironman in Lake Tahoe and clearly having forgotten the punishing training regime and discomfort of the actual race, such is the nature of both time passed and memories of the endorphin high above and beyond the pain. I had, like many before me and I am sure many after me, claimed rather unconvincingly that “one would probably be enough” as far as iron distance races went. No-one believed me and, rather predictably, it wasn’t long before the lure of the long course whispered to me again, the focus being on getting, first, into Roth and then, second, fit for Roth.
Having learned my lesson the year before I was ready and waiting, credit card details primed and finger on the mouse as the entries for Roth went live. As Sod’s Law would have it I actually secured two places this time around and had to forfeit one as that was all I needed. I was in. Cue the requisite training, working again with Trace Rogers and her new GroWings team, as we worked on building the fitness that I had honed over the previous two years. I will be the first to admit that my preparation for Roth was nowhere near as intense as for Tahoe, in part on account of work demands and schedules and also, quite honestly, because I felt significantly less pressure for this race. In my mind Roth was to be enjoyed above and beyond any other goal. It was also, logic dictated, meant to be a less physically demanding race compared to the high altitude course at Tahoe. Add to that the fact that I had established a pretty decent base level of endurance fitness, which all meant that I suffered less guilt if the odd session were missed or curtailed. That’s not to say I didn’t train: I certainly did. Hard and enthusiastically. Just not as hard as in previous years.
Fast forward several months and I was one of several Dubai-triathletes who jetted out, leaving behind the intense heat of summer for the kinder climes of Europe and specifically Bavaria. My parents were, once again, eager to join me in this iron adventure, being my staunch supporters in Tahoe and providing even more justification to tack on a decent holiday afterwards. Our first few days were spent in Nuremberg itself, starting our stay, quite by chance on account of some channel hopping in our apartment, by watching a BBC documentary “How To Become A German,” which was actually filmed in the city and provided some entertaining facts by which to start our experience. For example, we now had an official pork and beer consumption figure to aim for to truly feel German! Nuremberg was a beautiful city to explore, full of history, some of it dark but important to acknowledge, but more importantly now full of wonderful people, incredible culture, stunning architecture and food and drink options that satisfied our appetites very well. I even found the time to enjoy some of the city’s training infrastructure, joining an early morning swim session at one of the very modern, clean and popular indoor pools and running around the huge park close to our accommodation, which was part training run, part historical tour.
A couple of days before the actual race, we moved closer to Roth itself, although getting from the city to the race would not have been an issue or even taken very long, choosing to stay with a wonderful lady, Hanne, in her family’s fairytale cottage just outside the classically beautiful town of Schwabach. It was there that we had the good fortune to meet a Munich first-time iron triathlete, Dirk, and his family, all of whom reinforced the main memory of the trip, that being how incredibly friendly, fun, interesting and caring the Bavarian people are. Hanne and her husband, for example, made sure that all of us were fed the most exquisite meal of spaghetti bolognese the night before the race – our very own ‘pasta party’ – and were waiting by the door at midnight after the race, full breakdown of each of our races and a congratulatory beer in hand! As far as hosts went, they were truly champions of the art.
The first thing that becomes evident when entering the town of Roth, and Hipoltstein, where the swim takes place, is how into the event everyone truly is. Its as if the entire area comes out to welcome triathletes and their families, with signs everywhere and references to the race set against the backdrop of Disney-esque castles, postcard streets and rolling countryside that could have come straight out of the Hobbit.
The race village, expo and stadium, where the fireworks and finish were to be found, was a short walk from the centre of town and one was immediately reminded of the importance and pedigree of the race on the approach, with a series of displays showing details of past races, their winners and amazing photos. We arrived relatively early to register and even then the place was packed and buzzing with excited activity. Registration was straightforward and I left the marquee officially branded a ‘Participant’ and with a nice new backpack for my dad to accompany his Ironman Lake Tahoe one. The obligatory stop at the official Challenge store – surprisingly small it must be said, although this is based on a comparison to Ironman events, where it seems everything imaginable is available for purchase as a branded product – where a new set of caps were procured and some last minute shopping for essential items, including spare CO2 canisters, a race must.
I chose to join the Saturday morning practice swim such that I could check my bike in afterwards, and joined a crowd of similarly neoprene-clad “loons” (my mum’s observation) in testing out the fresh but thankfully not utterly freezing waters of the Main-Donau Canal, the famous stage for Challenge Roth’s swim, with it’s straightforward single loop, out and back course that promised a fast swim time and unprecedented levels of spectator support as onlookers cheered from the banks in clear view. The water itself, whilst refreshing, was certainly not clear and I was advised to do my best not to swallow any of it, especially given that several people suffered GI issues and one person I know had developed an ear infection following the swim last year. The fact that the weather in the week leading up to the race had actually been unseasonably cool lessened the risk in 2016 as I guess the bacteria levels in the canal were probably expected to be lower this year.
A few relaxed lengths and the obligatory spot of in-water photography later I was satisfied that the swim would not be too daunting an experience and so joined mum and dad for some “kaffee und kuchen” by the banks, watching others enjoy the water, before filling the time between the swim and check-in with sightseeing down the road, exploring the charming little town of Hipoltstein and scaling it’s castle for impressive views out over the surrounding area.
Bike check-in is always an exciting part of any race, especially the big, key events, as it is truly the moment at which it all gets real and the nervous trepidation starts to ramp up. What was hours before an empty green space with multiple pallets lined up in rows was rapidly transforming into a collective dream-park, each pristinely cleaned, tuned and individualised bike representing that person’s arrival on this very special stage. Bike racked and a couple of physical walk-throughs of my planned journey from the swim through transition and to my bike later I collected my parents, dropping off my run bag with the Challenge team and then navigated the crowds off the site and headed back to Roth in time for the race briefing.
The weather during our first week in Germany was, it would be accurate to say, changeable, lurching from cloudy and chilly to brilliant moments of bright sunshine and an equally impressive jump in the temperature. From initially worrying that race day might be “dull, cloudy and cold,” which would “suck” I soon started to change my tune, hoping that the day would, after all, remain somewhat cool given how fierce the sun seemed to be when it did make an appearance. That’s still the one element of everyone’s race that we can’t influence: the conditions. They simply are what they will be on the day and it is our job to suck it up and adapt/ cope as best we are able. One of the main bits of advice I took from the rather hot, stuffy and, frankly, protracted race briefing was to wear some arm warmers on the bike, as it was predicted to be pretty nippy the following morning. I am glad I took that advice and promptly added a pair to my kit collection as they did actually make a good deal of difference to my ultimate experience of the bike leg.
With the briefing complete and bike checked-in all that was left was to head on home, get some decent food on board, try and get some sleep – who actually ever sleeps properly the night before a big race?! – and remind myself that I was as prepared for the day as I could hope to be and that I should probably set two alarms, just in case.
One of the many differences between Ironman and Challenge, in my limited experience at least, is the fact that Challenge provide really professional race number tattoos for athletes whereas Ironman usually just involves getting your race number scrawled on in permanent marker. Getting to feel even moderately professional as an athlete is really fun and can help get you in the right head space pre-race, with even the application of the numbers providing a moment of quiet, concentrated reflection on what is to come. I like that. Alarms pre-empted, as much breakfast as my nervous stomach could manage – and what a spread! Hanne had once again surpassed herself – and mum and dad roused from their own beds – the price of being an iron athlete supporter and reliant on the same athlete to drive. Given that this was my first year racing, it was not simple for non-driving supporters to get back to Roth from Hipoltstein after the swim and I frankly didn’t fancy trekking back over there to collect the car after the race, we opted to park up in Roth, where mum and dad remained for the entire day and I availed myself of the athlete shuttle bus to get to the swim. Seeing the huge tailback on the approach to the swim start whilst the bus sailed past everyone I told myself that I had made the correct decision even though it did mean my parents missing out on one of the highlights of the Challenge Roth experience.
The atmosphere on site was electric and it was a pleasant, clear, slightly cool morning as I finalised my bike preparation, taping on my main drinks reservoir as I had seen others do – they clearly knew something I didn’t! Track pump borrowed, my tyres received their final check before I dropped my bike transition bag in place and paced the route from the swim exit, through the bag area, into the changing tent and out to my bike. Satisfied I knew the route well enough to ensure a smooth transition from the water, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Nervous Triathlete to make my donation, along with all of the other pilgrims, before finding a quiet-enough corner of the bike park in which to sit and wind down before I needed to properly wind up. I was joined at this point by fellow GroWings athlete, and first time iron-distance triathlete, Alex, who had chosen what was effectively his home race with which to pop his long-distance cherry. I offered a little, hopefully, helpful reassurance but knew from personal experience that at that stage the preparation was complete and the best thing to allow was quiet contemplation. The time was fast approaching and so the wetsuit was half-donned, shoes relinquished to the day bag, with this being dropped off with the Challenge team and representing the final ritual stage before the race itself. Now all that was left was to wait my turn and race my race.
I made my way towards the holding area for the swim and given that I was in one of the later waves to set off, found a spot from where I could view the swim start and watch the athletes before me. There I met fellow Dubai athletes Lynette, Vicky and (whilst technically now resident back in Germany, he is still considered a Tri-Dubai’er, especially as he was sporting the team colours) Florian, all of us quickly agreeing that our choice of ‘prime viewing’ location came with one drawback, that being the fact it was directly behind the portable loos! Sucking in lungfuls of other peoples’ anxiety was perhaps not the most advantageous – and certainly not fragrant – preparation one could make. Still, the view was good and the stinky wafts infrequent enough to see us remain and watch the pros, including the unstoppable Jan Frodeno, and Kenny head off, with all of us involuntarily jumping as the cannon went off. That was it; the race had officially kicked off and before long the age groupers were off and out, wave after wave kicking off to rapturous applause and the beautiful sight of hot air balloons rising from the misty of the fields on the opposite bank.
I had been expecting to spot my bosses during the week, both of them returning to Roth for what was their third (?) start, but had thus far alluded them. I did, however, spot Monique as she walked to the swim start, each giving the other a good luck hug and discovering that Malcolm was in one of the much later waves to go. My wave eventually came around but not before I had the chance to witness Frodeno sail past on his homeward leg, moving through the water like a graceful otter and minutes ahead of the rest of the field. With a start like that his chances of breaking the course record were on good footing. Go Jan!
And then it was my turn. The Challenge team did a sterling job right from the word go with rousing the crowd and getting the athletes primed, and we entered the water to the sounds of some epic rock anthem before swimming the short distance to the start rope. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually had some personal space in the water in spite of being in the second row from the front and as the gun finally sounded I was able to immediately stretch out and get some good strokes in. Whilst always aware of other athletes around me and only having to stop swimming at one point on account of an absence of spotting from one enthusiastic racer who cut across me, I really enjoyed the swim, finding the water refreshing rather than freezing and appreciating the distance markers on the bank. As I traversed the turnaround buoy I was pleasantly surprised at how civilised the swim was so far, quietly congratulating Challenge for opting for a wave start as opposed to mass. The waters got a little busier on the return leg, as sections of it did feel narrower and I found myself catching up with and passing earlier waves, always a bit of a confidence boost in any race. The crowds started to build once again as we neared the finish, although there was the slightly frustrating experience of having to swim straight past the exit and continue for what, it must be said, felt like a lot further than was expected, before making the final turn and powering on towards transition. Once again, the Challenge team were on hand to make life a little easier, as teams of volunteers were stood, waist deep in the water assisting athletes to their feet and sending them off up the ramp into transition. Stage one complete.
You know those memes that fly around Facebook where they have the four pictures and captions such as “What my friends think I do… What I think I do…” etc? Well in my mind whenever I exit the water in a triathlon I imagine myself to be this pumped, super focused all-star athlete powering up the runway before expertly grabbing my bag and seamlessly hitting transition, all in one superbly fluid motion of grace. What I actually become is the equivalent of Bambi having a hypoglycaemic episode, legs absolutely not listening to the instructions being sent to them and my efforts to stay on the correct channel to pick up my bag failing miserably. So, an unintended hop to the left, recovery, return to the correct channel, spot my bag, fumble for it and somehow pick it up before beginning the rapid scan of the transition tent for a space where I could make the shift from amphibious creature to terrestrial one. That is how I would describe my Challenge Roth T1 experience.
Once inside the changing tent, a huge open plan affair, it became apparent that it was true what people say about Germany, this race and nudity – it matters not. What would be utterly banned in Dubai simply isn’t an issue in Bavaria, as naked butts and full frontals, both male and female, flapped around merrily without a second thought to who was able to see. The volunteers must have literally seen it all that morning – I certainly did! Still, everyone had just one thing on their mind and that was to get out to their bikes as quickly as possible.
I am not famed for my rapid transitions – just ask my exasperated coach – and Roth was no exception. Whilst Frodeno made it out in seconds, I took about ten minutes ensuring I was as dry as possible, before changing into cycle – and, by default, run – gear, ensuring to grease up generously and slap on the sunscreen, as although the sun was yet to put in a meaningful appearance, my experience up to that point of it’s power during the trip was that it would come out with teeth. Arm warmers on – with some serious assistance from the nearest volunteer – and I was about ready to grab my bike and make like a real cyclist for what I hoped would be a maximum of about 5.5 hours….. How little I knew of what was in store at this stage!
I was feeling good from the outset, quickly accelerating off from the start and overtaking several other athletes before the first sharp left hand turn towards Roth and off out onto the cycle route. My bike had been serviced and cleaned (although I was not impressed that it had been packed away sopping wet! Cue rust…. not cool) prior to being packed up, and there had been no issues that I was aware of from a mechanical point of view. Anyway, I had spares and enough CO2 to keep me going in the worst case. It wasn’t long, unfortunately, before that case descended. And descend in spectacular style it did.
A flat less than 10km out?! Seriously?! The first I knew of it was that I felt that foreboding sense of acute deceleration and looked back to see the back tyre blown. A small expletive was uttered before I hopped off and quickly set to replacing it – after all, what else was there to do?! Of either of the tyres to get a flat in the rear is the worst as it is just a bit more of a pain in the arse to take the wheel off, disengage the gears and chain and generally get it all fixed up, but it had to be done. Anyway, cue looks of pity from fellow racers as they zoomed past and I put into practice that which I had not had to contend with in any previous race. Thank God for those YouTube viewings!
Before too long I had a new tube in place, after ensuring that there was nothing sharp or loose hiding in my tyre, and set to inflating it using one of the many CO2 canisters that I was carrying. Whilst the pressure wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked, I was back in charge of a functional bike and so back on the road and into the race. I knew there were bike stations at a few of the aid stations so was confident I could always just top up the air if necessary when I reached the next one. At least, I thought, I had gotten my one bit of bad luck out of the way.
Cue second bit of bad luck for the day, and the one that I honestly thought meant the end of my race and history repeating itself in so far as “year one = warm-up; year two = complete the race.” As we started the first of the real climbs of the day I shifted gears and suddenly heard my chain pop off. Looking down I saw that the chain had been dumped over the main ring, forcing me to stop for the second time in the race so far and less than twenty clicks out of transition! I replaced the chain but then noticed the bigger issue…… the rear derailleur was engaging the spokes of my back wheel meaning that it could not rotate properly! Shit! Not seeing any good reason for why this might be the case and recognising it for what it clearly was – a race-ending mechanical issue – I uttered my second expletive of the day, this more heartfelt than the first – and desperately wracked my brain for possible options. That’s when the first of the day’s superhero spectators came to the rescue. Seeing I was in strife, a guy came out of nowhere asking what the issue was. I explained in pigeon German to which he gestured for me to follow him a little further up the hill. There he and his friend diagnosed the issue – the derailleur was overextending on the highest gear, meaning that it dumped the chain and hit the rear wheel – and so the solution was to simply NOT move to my highest gear. This had never been an issue before and this was the second point at which I questioned the value of getting my bike serviced so close to an actual race – had the gears been adjusted thus leading to this issue? No time to really dwell on the question as I was back on and with a little push to get me started, accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of “Danke! Vielen Dank!!” from me, I was off again. Surely that had to be it for the day! Any more issues and I was surely going to be looking at a disappointing end.
As I exited the first aid section I spotted a spectator with a track pump and so stopped, asking to use it quickly to get my rear tyre up to a correct pressure. It was almost a laugh out loud moment then when I felt the by now familiar sensation of my rear tyre rapidly deflating a short distance from the station and at the bottom of a nice downhill section that set everyone up perfectly for a lovely flat straight. Cue third, louder expletive, this time uttered in German, and a fourth as I reached inside my bike pouch to find no spare tube! WTF?! I could have sworn I had at least two! I had to have another one!!! But I didn’t. I was without a spare but very much with a flat. Shit indeed. Hmm… wait for the bike tech, not knowing where it was, or start walking towards the next aid station, hoping to be met en route by the techs? No question really. And so walk is what I did. The only silver lining to this event was that it meant I was able to witness the full glory of Jan Frodeno sailing past like a rocket on the bike, an experience that whilst awe-inspiring did drive home just how far I still had to go myself, especially as it was Jan’s second loop and just the start of my first!
A couple of clicks down the road, and by now easily able to tell spectators in German that I had a flat, for the second time, and no spares – “Ich habe einen platten! Es ist das zweite und ich habe keine mehr Schläuche!” – the bike support quad roared up, enquired what the issue was and then disappointingly said they didn’t have the right wheel, before tearing off again. All I could do then was keep walking. The next team to catch me were the athlete minibuses. “Was I out?” was the question. “Not if I can help it,” was my quick answer. I must admit that I had to consider the option of throwing in the towel when they told me that it could be up to four hours before I either got to the bike station or was met by one of the teams(?!). Something told me that it was still worth continuing and so I simply quipped that it was a nice day for a walk and if anything a great way to see some of the countryside before continuing my stroll.
My faith was relatively quickly repaid as I entered yet another village and was greeted by a concerned spectator who told me he was a fellow triathlete and had a spare! Hooray! Feeling like Lewis Hamilton in the pits, him and his family set to getting my bike roadworthy again and I was, once again, back on the road! Legends, absolute legends! You tell me where else in the world and at what other race one would find that kind of spectator support, and in the arse end of nowhere to boot?! Acutely mindful of the time deficit I had suffered so far I felt compelled to put my head down and really put in some serious effort, overtaking a number of others in the process, which went some way to making me feel a little better about the trajectory on which my day seemed to have been placed. I realised that given the considerable delay my target goals for the race were going to have to shift and evolve. No longer was I a contender for a sub-11 hour finish and so having made peace with that fact I resolved to aim for a 12 hour finish, or thereabouts. The temptation to overpush it on the rest of the bike leg was one I had to actively suppress, especially given that my heart rate monitor had failed to work from the moment I switched it on and, not training or racing with a power meter, all I had left was to race paying attention to perceived effort.
Spotting a small bike station at the top of the next hill, I stopped to request a spare, paranoid as I was now that my rear tyre and I did not have the same level of commitment to this race and so wishing to hedge my bets by having a spare on me. Although, lets be honest: one flat is just unfortunate, two annoying and extremely unlikely. Three? Well, that would have surely been unheard of and a sign, if it had happened, that something was fundamentally wrong with my wheel?! So, I started back out feeling a little safer but still paranoid given what had gone down so far.
The bike leg of Challenge Roth sees athletes complete two loops, before a short final section takes them back into Roth and onto the run. The loop is, it would surely be agreed by all, breathtakingly beautiful as we got to cycle through some of the most classically attractive European countryside there is. Rolling green hills, fields of varying crops, dense deciduous forest, cute villages and towns with architecture and a sense of history of another era, all underpinned by some of the best, most smoothly and well-maintained roads I have ever cycled on. The support from locals, who were to be found at even the most out-of-the-way locations in addition to being out in force in the main villages and dedicated ‘hot spots’, was electric and it was impossible not to feel the surge in motivation, effort and energy that arrived with being met by the wall of loud, enthusiastic support that greeted us at regular intervals. One such example of the unique and enthusiastic support on this race was the old guy who was dressed in full clown outfit and who stood on the side of the road in a part of the course that was extremely rural. Not only did I see him on my first loop but he was still there on the second, continuing to wave and applaud as we all trundled by.
The first of the really meaty climbs was also such a spot and the fact that so many people were on hand to cheer us all up the gradient made it so much easier to bear. Talking of climbs, the legendary Solar Hill was everything that I had heard it was: spine tingling and I was simply unable to suppress the childish grin that spread automatically across my face as I powered my bike up the steep climb, with hoardes of supporters screaming support, waving flags and rattling clangers all the way to the top. Incredible! Once up Solar Hill you know that you’re close to the end of the loop, and so I knew that I was a little under 50% of the way through the bike leg. So far so good as far as inflated tyres as well! Although this was not for long as I got to, no word of a lie, virtually the SAME point that I happened to puncture the second time. I’m pretty certain I both laughed, cried a little and definitely painted the air blue at what was now officially my third flat of the day. The novelty and “fun” factor of having a flatty during a race had most certainly worn off by this stage and all I could think was “No! I have come too damned far to quit now! I WILL finish this race!” But, I thought, it is ok because I had the presence of mind to pick up a spare tube on the first loop. How clever I am! So, tube was removed and, thankfully, I first checked that the new CO2 canisters that I had previously purchased actually fitted my adaptor – why oh why I had not thought to do the same back when I purchased them at the Expo and before I had started the race is beyond me but hey ho – and would you believe it, they did NOT fit! Aaaaaarrrrgghhh!!!! So back to walking it was, this time nearly as far as the little station where I had picked up the spare in the first place, with the last few metres assisted by some filler foam that one of the guys from the station had cycled down the road to meet me with. Convinced, and super paranoid, by now that there was clearly an issue with my back wheel I felt little confidence as I headed back out on the road and simply spent the next 75km praying to the bike Gods to be kind to me. All I now wanted was to get to the run because as long as I had at least 4-4.5 hours (the extra was mentally allowed on account of the fact that I was expecting to be broken by the time I reached it) then I could still make the 15 hour cut off and beat this thing! I did still find some pleasure in the stunning scenery, exhilarating downhills and the, by now lessened but no less heartening, support on the course. What gave me real pleasure, however, was finally seeing the turn off towards Roth at which point I did punch the air, and then the piece de resistance: T2!
The sight of the banners stretched across the road and that signaled the entrance to transition and the end of my seven and a half hours out on the bike course came like a beautiful vision and I actually found myself thanking the universe as I rounded the corner, un-clipped my pedals and shakily dismounted. I had made it! Handing my bike off to the volunteer I vaguely recall telling them, in all seriousness, that they could keep it as I tottered round to the changing tent now acutely aware of some serious chafing and the good sense in putting spare 3B cream into my transition bag – seriously, that stuff is a lifesaver! Again, the volunteers were so incredible and before I knew what was happening I had been generously covered in sunscreen and was off out onto the run course, with the sun now very much in attendance.
I’d love to say that I enjoyed the entire run but that would be a massive lie as the first 10km at the least were pretty wretched, and Monique will testify to how much that showed on my face when we passed each other at the 4km marker – my 4km I hasten to add; she was significantly further along by that stage. The run was a fairly simple course, heading out of Roth and out onto the path running alongside the Main-Donau Canal, the same one we had swum in further upstream, with the vast majority of the running literally being a straight line up and down said path. I was grateful for the presence of aid stations about every 3km and soon settled into my plan of ‘run 3km at 10km pace followed by a 1.5min walk through the station.’ It is safe to say that my pace between the stations early on was certainly not my usual 10km pace and the walks may have been a little longer than 90 seconds, but the cold water sponges, water and coke were all absolutely welcome, with the sponges especially helpful as I refreshed them at pretty much every station due to it actually being really quite a hot day by then. I did, however, soon remember the hidden dangers of over hydrating and thinking that I could cool myself by drinking, when in actual fact this was only going to hinder my run. I was glad that I had the presence of mind to do so as my tactics changed and I started to find my legs. Hitting the 11km mark in the first hour made me realise that I could aim for a four hour marathon and salvage something good from the race. This represented a turning point for me.
Without a working HRM I just had to trust in my pacing and rate of perceived effort to guide my running. This worked pretty well and my second 11km felt significantly smoother, so much so that I even felt able to share a little joke with one beer drinking spectator that a beer right at that moment would have been awesome! So there they were: my running legs! They were back with me and with them a new sense of confidence. As I passed the 26km mark, heading down the second leg of the canal, I actually felt amazing and quickened the pace a little, enjoying the thrill of sailing past runner after runner, only stopping very briefly at every other aid station and primarily doing so to simply swap out the cold water sponges that had fast become essential to my comfort. The final section through the woods and looping back over the canal before switching back on ourselves was tough, with a long, steady uphill to contend with and tired legs whispering to walk “just a little.” Seeing other runners getting a massage at the 30km mark only made this whispering louder and so it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and pounding on, all the while thinking of the end game and that line.
As I hit the 32km mark I made a decision that I was absolutely going to run in under 4 hours and so planned to quicken the pace over the penultimate 5km, increasing it to shy of a sprint for the final 5km. Amazingly I did just that, although must confess that I came so incredibly close to a walk at the 38km mark that it was almost a different story. Stubbornness, however, won out and as I re-entered the town, running down into the historic centre and the scenes that I recognised from the previous year’s You Tube footage I knew that I had barely 2km to go. “Head down, eyes straight, keep a good form and breathe.” I was going to do it if I kept up this pace. Run, run, run. The park was close. Run, run, run. And then the carpet appeared and the track narrowed, spectators lining the edges. Thankfully I had some time in the bank as I was unable to pass a few runners who had slowed to greet family members, although thankfully they did eventually step aside and I was able to crank up the pace into the main stadium but only after passing my father who, as with my Ironman in Tahoe, I barely recognised in my race-weary state as he shouted out and I caught a fleeting glimpse over my shoulder. Now was not the time to stop!
The stadium was an experience and a half and in hindsight I wish I had given my parents my 360-degree camera to hand to me before I entered it as recording those final few steps in full immersive glory would have been amazing. As I turned the final corner I heard the announcer mention my name and the welcome into the Challenge Family before there it was: the finish line! I had never been so happy to see a finish line than at that very moment and I hope the pictures do that sense justice. I felt I had beaten the odds and clawed back the race for myself when it looked as though it was doomed to be a disappointment. Why do we do this to ourselves? What is it that compels us to put ourselves through this kind of arduous trial in the name of leisure? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that on the day, when its all on the line, we are capable of digging into parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realise were there and are able to scoop up just that little bit more grit, determination, will to make it to the end and with our heads held high. That was what Challenge Roth was for me. It was supposed to be a bit more of a leisurely race after the challenges of racing in Lake Tahoe, and I was fully expecting to come in with a significantly faster time as befitted the terrain and course. What I got instead was what was printed on the race number: a challenge, and I feel, weirdly, that I am now the better for it.
One thing that my Lake Tahoe experience and Roth had in common was the fact that I felt utterly unable to eat much at all after the race, forcing down a couple of yogurts and a welcome glass of Erdinger alcohol-free Weissbier, which tasted like liquid heaven! The post-race amenities, services and food were pretty impressive and I just wish that I felt more able to take advantage of them. There were multiple massage tables, showers for athletes and a very eclectic and generous spread of food on offer for hungry athletes to tuck into, with everything from pasta to baguettes and beyond. I did not linger too long in this area however as my parents were outside waiting for me. Having zero real idea of where geographically the run-in actually was and not wishing to get lost in the crowds looking for them I headed to our previously agreed meeting spot at the entrance to the site. As the light started to fade it soon dawned on me that perhaps mum and dad had not recalled the plan and so I set out to search for them, thankfully bumping straight into mum and avoiding a frustrating search of the entire site. As such, the delay and the failing light did mean that post-race photos were not going to work and so we headed off to collect my bike before trekking through a long, very very dark and winding road that snaked through woods to find our car, seeing the final fireworks light up the sky as we reached it. A fitting end to a very very long day, both for me and my folks, who had been in Roth itself since 4am and can now confirm that nothing really starts happening in the town until about lunchtime.
Our hosts confirmed their utter awesomeness by being on hand to greet both me, my family, and the other family, who we met up with again in Munich the following week. Enjoying a well earned beer and recounting the events of the day with friends and family was the perfect way to round out an amazing Challenge Roth experience, and it was so heartening to know that everyone in this part of the world truly does get behind and excited about the triathlon, with our hosts even producing a detailed printout of both Dirk’s and my race statistics! Dirk was racing his first ever triathlon and had a great day, suggesting that he might well be back again in the near future. Once is truly never enough when it comes to long distance racing!
There are so many reasons why Challenge Roth is consistently voted as the best triathlon by athletes and to list them all would be an entire article in itself. For me the main attractions and experiences were:
The enthusiasm of athletes who have raced it before – I am yet to meet a single triathlete who has raced Roth and not loved it. No other triathlon really sees people get that effusive as with Roth, with most recounting the genuine goosebumps that result during the ascent of Solar Hill. The description of this part of the bike course as being akin to a “religious experience” was what spurred me into action in applying for the race and I can confirm that it is every bit as magical as reported. No other race, as far as I am aware, has such a fervour of enthusiasm and support as Challenge Roth and this alone makes it a must-do event for anyone intending to race at iron distance.
The stadium finish – no finish line that I have ever crossed has yet matched the overwhelming feeling of scale and celebration that Challenge Roth engenders. To experience tiers of wild cheering and enthusiastic applause from all sides in the final meters of a race is a feeling that is almost indescribable. As mentioned before I absolutely wish I had been able to record the experience in 360-degrees so that I could go some way to sharing it with others – it made the thirteen hours of grueling activity all worthwhile.
Roth and the surrounding area – in fact the entirety of Bavaria makes entering Challenge Roth a must-do as it is stunningly beautiful. Historical, charming, picture postcard, timeless, cultured, rolling – some of the words to describe this unique part of the world. We were fortunate enough to stay on in Bavaria for a further week of rest and recuperation after the race and loved every second of it. In fact, I would gladly move over to Munich in a heartbeat if given the chance such was the charm of the city!
The people – I was blown away by how genuinely hospitable, friendly, helpful and enthusiastic everyone we met in Bavaria was. If it were not for the genuine warmth, concern and enthusiasm of public supporters on the bike course my race would have ended painfully early on – I would argue that there is not a single other race in the world where you will experience that level of crowd support over every stage. It completely reaffirms your faith in humanity and helped spur me on to do what might have previously seemed unthinkable. We made genuine friends for life in the process and I feel a special sense of affection now for Germany and in particular Bavaria.
Special thanks to everyone who supported me pre, during and post race, especially my coach, Trace Rogers, my parents/ chief cheerleaders, and the entire Dubai and wider triathlon community, of which I am proud to be a part of.
What do you do when you find you have an unexpected week off work? There are a hundred and one ways that I could have easily occupied the time in Dubai and yet I also feared that I would probably fail to truly maximise the time and so turned my thoughts towards doing some exploring. But where?
Since arriving in the Middle East, a perfect jumping off point for the Far East, all of my trips have basically taken me back West, something that I have realised on numerous occasions feels like a missed opportunity. So, my thoughts headed east and specifically to both Singapore and Hong Kong, where I am fortunate enough to have friends in both cities. For a short period I did consider playing out the true jet-set image by taking in both during the same trip, especially as I was keen to visit INSEAD’s campus in Singapore, but concluded that the schedule would be too crammed and the additional time spent in transit a poor use of a limited number of hours that could be better directed to actually exploring and relaxing. Given that I had visited Singapore once before, albeit many years ago, and had never been to Hong Kong I opted for the latter and so booked the flights. Decision made.
Its strange that in spite of living in an age of ample online sources of information, including video footage and Google Maps data, my imagined ideas of the place and what I actually experienced in person were so different. I took an overnight flight, relishing in my luck at having an entire row of seats to myself thus affording me some – but not enough – sleep as I headed east and landed at Hong Kong’s airport, perched at the far end of Lantau Island, a 30 minute metro ride from the city itself, and built upon reclaimed land, a technology that has revolutionised and transformed Hong Kong over the years. With a return airport express ticket in hand, facilitated by the incredibly helpful attendant who I swear spoke better English than I do, I boarded the train all the while amazed at just how few people there were. Anywhere. I told myself that I must have simply arrived at a bizarrely early hour and that the city was yet to wake as I had been expecting to grapple with throngs of people from the moment I arrived.
It was especially overcast and cloudy as I arrived and the first glimpses of Hong Kong were dark, dreary views of construction over the bay, and nondescript high rises as we approached Kowloon. Views of the famous skyline itself would have to wait as we went from Kowloon station to Hong Kong station, my final stop and from where I was advised to grab a cab for the short journey to Wan Chai and the SPCA, my home for the week and where my friend Matt, a fellow vet, and his girlfriend, Thea, lived. The first thing that struck me was actually how relatively small, geographically speaking, Hong Kong truly is. The island of Hong Kong, and the city that everyone knows, starts at the edge of Hong Kong bay, approximately 1km narrower now than it once was on account of the degree of reclamation that has taken place, and quickly climbs steeply to hills covered in lush vegetation before sweeping down to the opposite coast, where small coves, bays and exclusive settlements like Stanley are situated. The fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on the planet is thus down to the engineering miracle that is the high-rise, with impossibly tall buildings clinging to slopes that would make some ski resorts giddy. Just how some of them were built amazes me!
In spite of grand plans to grab the day by the horns and make the most of my time in the city, I confess that my “quick nap” turned into an all-day snore-fest and it was the early evening, once Matt had returned from work, that I emerged bleary eyed and ready to sample some of the local cuisine. Food plays a big role in Hong Kong and it is delicious, with a classically local dim sum joint being our destination, after a couple of cheeky beers in one of the many bars. Matt had advised me to pick up a pre-paid 4G SIM card for my phone and a quick stop at one of the small street-side vendors saw me instantly connected to the network and thus able to function as any digital citizen of the city.
Determined to make up for the loss of the previous day, although I clearly needed the sleep, I got up relatively early the next day, starting out with a run that saw me weave through the neighbourhood of Wan Chai, through and around Victoria Park, a short distance from the apartment, around Happy Valley, the famous racetrack, and back along the waterfront, stopping off for some delicious BBQ pork buns for breakfast Hong Kong style. Feeling somewhat reenergised and taking the advice of Thea, I packed up a few things in a daypack, hailed a cab and headed up to Parkview and the start of a hiking trail known as the Wilson Trail, and specifically a section of it that took in the Twins, two peaks that ultimately brought me down to Stanley on the other side of the island. It was a very overcast day and as we climbed into Parkview, we entered an eery world that felt almost dreamlike such was the effect of being up in the clouds. The hike initially involved a steep ascent of multiple stone steps before winding along a narrow hilltop track that saw me above the cloudline and, as such, without the views that I knew would have been spectacular. I did have sounds though, with various birdsong intermingling with the distant clang of construction, growing louder as I approached Repulse Bay, the source of the building din. Being in China I could not help imagine that the bangs, grumbles and clatters were in fact a giant dragon, hidden from view by the cloak of cloud that kept its presence secret.
I know that Hong Kong is a very humid, and thus wet, place but it seemed that I had elected to head out during a particularly wet week, although Dubai didn’t fare too much better as it turned out. As such, in addition to getting soggy via the humidity and exertion required on the hike, I also found myself caught in a thunderstorm. All told, I arrived in Stanley feeling as though I had walked there via a hot, steamy shower! My initial plan had been to do a training swim in the sea off Stanley’s beach but given the rather grey day, the fact that I was actually pretty tired and keen to return to Hong Kong itself in order to make the races and the fact that I had read all about the sharks that do populate the waters around the area, I opted to keep my soggy feet on dry land.
Refuelled and souvenir in hand, I hopped on one of the minibuses heading back into the city and enjoyed views of Clearwater Bay, Repulse Bay and Ocean Park, a theme park nestled up on a headland opposite Repulse Bay, before we drove through the Aberdeen Tunnel and emerged back into Hong Kong proper. A swift turnaround back at the apartment and it was off out again, this time with brolly in hand, to grab some dinner and check out the races, a hugely popular activity on Wednesday night in Hong Kong.
The Happy Valley racecourse sits in, well, a valley and was actually named somewhat tongue in cheek on account of the fact that when it was first settled, the marshy environment, and the legions of mosquitoes that came with it, meant that many of the settlers died, with the area being turned over to numerous cemeteries, gravestones visible as they climb the slopes like dull, grey, geometric creepers. Once inside the racetrack, the mood was one of a much more jovial nature, with throngs of racegoers all enjoying the food, booze and music on show, in addition to waging a fortune on the outcome of the various races being run that night. Apparently more than $100M is bet each week alone, if the book I read is to be believed. A staggering amount of money that makes the Jockey Club one of the biggest contributors to the city coffers out of anyone. I, for one, am not that keen on betting and so after watching one race, I headed out and toward a nearby hotel where I was certain I would be rewarded with a stunning elevated view of the entire course, in addition to it being dry. Randomly, during the walk from the track I passed Vernon Troy, of Austin Powers’ Mini Me fame, out for an evening with his friends. Dubai, it seems, is not the only place for random celeb-spotting.
Thursday was spent closer to home, and took Matt and I over the bay via one of the very many ferries that zip around the harbour to Kowloon, with the New Territories and China beyond. We checked out Chungking Mansions, a labyrinthine multi-level building of stalls, restaurants and many other services alike, before taking in the Hong Kong skyline from the harbour. Much like in Dubai, construction is everywhere in Hong Kong, with the city constantly growing and changing. The energy is one of high velocity growth and optimism and feels so at odds with what I experienced during my brief visit back to the UK.
Returning to Downtown via the incredibly efficient metro, we headed up to Lan Kwai Fong, the (in)famous bar and restaurant region of the city, where Matt suggested an awesome Brazilian grill for lunch. More walking, including checking out the awesome Mid-levels escalator – yes, Hong Kong actually has an escalator that goes up the hill! That is just THE BEST! With Hong Kong being so dense it is actually pretty straightforward to explore much of it quite quickly and with this sense of curiosity I headed off independently for the Peak tram and to see whether the views would be kind enough to come out and play. They did and they were worth it!
The tram that takes visitors from Downtown up the incredibly steep slopes to the Peak, and the 360-degree viewing platform, was well worth the ticket price, with the clouds thankfully clearing for my visit and permitting spectacular views over the city, the bay, Kowloon and beyond. Any visit to Hong Kong simply has to include this on the itinerary and once I had exhausted my inner photographer I took advantage of my 4G to Skype the folks back home and share the experience and view with them. A great day of touristy fun all told and topped off with a fantastic Chinese meal with my hosts and a variety of their friends at a Wan Chai restaurant.
By this stage I was getting into the tourist swing of things and so looked to check out one of the ‘Top Ten’ that a friend, Rosee, had suggested: the Giant Buddha. A relatively short metro trip back out west to the tip of Lantau island and the town just next to the airport saw me connect with the cable car that takes visitors up and over the hills to Ngong Ping, site of the Po Lin monastery and 34m high bronze Buddha that sits breathtakingly atop a hill. The more energised visitor has the option to trek up the lengthy trail, something I elected to pass on although would consider as an awesome training run one day if I ever return. The short stroll from the cable car station towards the Buddha and monastery took me through the somewhat touristy village, complete with shops selling various momentos, snacks and other paraphanalia, before passing through an impressive stone arch and onto a large, circular area, with the monastery to the left and, up a long flight of stone stairs, the Buddha himself.
The monastery was serenely peaceful, beautifully gilded, with incredibly intricate and ornate decorations adorning both the inside of the temples and the exteriors, and it was easy to find a sense of peace as I idly wandered around, with cows nonchalantly sidling past in search of a quiet patch to solemnly chew the cud and consider the tourists enthusiastically snapping away. I confess that I was one of those same tourists and all three cameras – Theta (360-degree), SLR and iPhone – were called upon to capture various aspects of the visit. Completely aware of the fact that I was playing the perfect tourist I slipped into one of the tea houses as I left, enjoying a delicious pot of jasmine tea and some almond cookies, before taking the chilly return cable-car back to the train and Hong Kong.
With Matt and Thea off on holiday that day, I had arranged to catch up with some other Hong Kong based friends over the weekend, meeting them at a rooftop bar at the International Finance Centre mall, with views back out over the bay to Kowloon. Our initial destination that evening was to check out the Taste food event, one of which is held in Dubai each year and, I believe, other cities around the world. As much as the small amounts of food I got to taste were undeniably delicious, I did rather find the event overpriced, overhyped and despite spending a reasonable amount left feeling just as hungry as I did upon entering. It may have been this lack of complete saiety that saw the rest of the evening unfold as it did, with the four of us piling into a taxi for a trip over to Wan Chai and the start of an evening of drinking and clubbing, culminating in me being the last to spill out of our final nightspot and find my way back to the apartment only after initially having to correct course as I found myself walking uphill as opposed to down towards the bay! I was certainly grateful that Hong Kong is fundamentally easy to navigate at that point, otherwise I have no idea where I might have ended up.
It is a sad truth that there must be balance in the world and so it was that a heavy and lengthy night must be paid for with the loss of the following day. The sofa was my friend for pretty much the entirety of Saturday, feeling as devoid of energy and drive to move as I must have surely looked. Through the collective will of the group and facilitated via the steadily growing crescendo of Whats App pings, a plan to meet up for some food was actioned and another evening commenced, this time starting at a delicious BBQ restaurant in SoHo. Bellies full and heads a little less swirling our evening took in a couple of the bars in the Mid Levels area of the city, with one serving the saving grace of the evening, Espresso Martinis, that saw us all make it through to watching the Six Nations rugby match between England and Wales. Another great evening in a truly energetic city.
One of the last things I did in Hong Kong, at the advice of my friend James, was to get up nice and early, head over to Kowloon and enjoy breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s dining room on the 103rd floor of the International Commerce Centre. The breakfast was standard high-end hotel fare but the real attraction was the view, this time back across the bay to take in the entirety of Hong Kong island itself. Beautiful! Busy! Burgeoning! From this vantage point it is possible to appreciate just how active the bay is, with boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing along, zipping across each others’ paths as they headed off on whatever business they were on, whether it be collecting and delivering cargo or ferrying passengers around the bay and city. Hong Kong truly is a spectacle and testament to the engineering expertise of humans as well as our drive to keep growing and changing. It is a city that I had preconceptions of but found myself surprised by, pleasantly so. It is one that I could imagine myself living in, despite the fact that the summer months are just as hot and muggy as any experienced in Dubai, and for anyone seeking an exciting city escape, but with the option to head out into nature as well, then Hong Kong is the place to go.
The Upload Collective is a co-working space for those working in the rapidly growing, exciting, immersive field of Virtual Reality (VR) and located in San Francisco. It offers access to like-minded people, mentorship from some of the industry’s leading thinkers and successful entrepreneurs and financiers, in addition to the ability to use shared resources, such as VR headsets, to help minimise the costs associated with launching a start-up in the space. It is also just good fun! A cool place to hang out, with interesting, exciting people all with a common passion and interest.
Why Did I Visit?
I am deeply fascinated by VR, and indeed spatial computing in all of it’s forms, seeing it as the next, logical step in our move towards ever more immersive digital interactions and intuitive computing that promises to change every facet of how we create and interact with content. From healthcare to learning to entertainment, spatial computing is, and will continue to do so at an ever greater rate, change how we work, learn and play. I was aware of Upload VR from my time at AWE (Augmented World Expo) in 2015, where I volunteered in a bid to connect with and learn more about both augmented and virtual reality. Hooked in an instant, I have continued to follow UploadVR as a source of industry news and decided that during my next trip to the Bay Area I wanted to visit and see first-hand what they were doing in the city. A LinkedIn email to Taylor Freeman, co-founder of UploadVR, later and a date was set for me to head on over and talk all things VR. In addition to being able to meet the people involved and see for myself what was going on at the collective I also really, really wanted to physically experience high-resolution VR myself. I had been able to try out a few VR experiences at AWE last year but since then both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive had been commercially released, along with a plethora of incredible experiences to accompany them. I was still trying to decide on which system to consider investing in and the only way to really know for sure is to try and garner the opinion on industry leaders, right?!
What Did I See & Who Did I Meet?
After having to rearrange the meeting on account of the Memorial Day holiday in the US, I headed round the corner from where I was staying in San Francisco to the Upload Collective’s space on Mission for my early meeting with Taylor. Walking in to their first floor space the first thing that struck me was how light and airy the place felt, with all of the casual cool that one naturally associates with a technology start-up. Comprising a large central co-working space, with a well-equipped kitchen at one end and comfortable sofas and the obligatory bean bag, this area was fringed with a number of separate rooms, containing various computers, whiteboards and all the other stuff one might need to create the future of immersive technology. One room, much bigger than the rest, contained a whole load of studio equipment and green screens, used for creating VR showcases in which people not wearing a headset can still feel immersed in what it is the user is experiencing. This is still one of the biggest hurdles for VR to overcome: how can you get people truly excited about the technology and experience without, well, actually physically donning a headset. It is the biggest marketing issue that VR has and whilst efforts by Google, and third parties such as the New York Times who gave away millions of Google Cardboard headsets to readers, to introduce people to the wonder of VR, it remains so that in order to really “get VR” it is vital to “try VR,” especially the high-end devices and experiences. Work being conducted at Upload Collective is aiming to tackle this very challenge.
Other rooms, and the ones I instantly had my attention drawn towards, were the VR rooms themselves. Devoid of furniture, blacked out and foam-lined, with a powerful gaming PC and various pieces of VR equipment sitting on hooks at one end, these are where the magic happens, or rather where it is experienced.
Given the fact that it was a) early and b) the day after the holiday weekend, there were not very many people in when I visited and so I daresay that I didn’t quite get the full impression of the energy that would normally coarse through the space in a usual day.
I met Taylor, who promptly offered me my first caffeine hit of the day courtesy of the shared espresso machine, and we sat down to talk about how UploadVR came about, Taylor’s own background and path into the space and plans for Upload Collective, including their collaboration with Make School, situated just next door, on a course for budding VR developers. You can read a little more about UploadVR here.
The second person I met was Avi Horowitz, Intern at Large at Upload, who was kind enough to get me set up on one of the Collective’s HTC Vive headsets and launched me into the first of several incredible VR experiences, Google’s amazing 3D art program, Tiltbrush.
What Did I Do?
Needless to say the time I spent in VR whilst visiting the Upload Collective was the most fun I have had in a very long time and was, without doubt, one of the highlights of my visit to San Francisco. Right off the bat I was hooked, with Google’s Tiltbrush proving the perfect introduction to the magic of high-resolution VR. I will do my best to describe what I experienced but as with trying to do VR justice in any other medium than actually trying it for yourself, it may not hit the mark.
As soon as I donned the headset I found myself standing in a blank, flat landscape, fringed with stars on the horizon and a beautiful night sky. Avi, with a simple selection from the menu, changed this setting such that I now found myself standing in the middle of space, surrounded on all sides by stars. Magical! However, this was nothing compared to what was to come next. Using the two controllers supplied with the Vive, I had all the tools of a master artist, with my left serving as a rotating smorgasbord of art options and my right as the main tool. With a simple ‘laser light’ tool selected I started drawing in the void in front of me. Yes! Drawing right there in space! This simple action may not have been that impressive on a 2D surface, such as a graphics tablet, but the fact that I was laying down graphics in 3D, such that I was able to walk towards, through, and around it made the entire experience a revelation. Much as I can imagine how Michelangelo would have felt at discovering the power and potential of sculpting clay as a medium for artistic expression, I felt the same thrill and joy at the potential for just what was now possible using this medium. A childish grin the size of the Cheshire Cat’s instantly spread across my face as I quickly learn’t how to select different tools, colours, effects and with all the enthusiastic urgency of a toddler at play set to creating my ‘masterpiece.’ The fact that what I was drawing/ building/ creating was nothing more than formless nonsense was immaterial. What was important was just how addictive, immersive and unique the experience was. I can not even imagine a child not becoming deeply fascinated in art and the process of design and creation using such a powerful yet intuitive tool as VR. As a medium for limitless artistic expression it is un-rivalled and for anyone professionally involved in design, from architects to product designers, being able to walk around, through and view your creations from any and all angles it surely renders the lowly drawing board redundant. It is testament to how incredibly fun this one VR experience is that I spent about an hour playfully immersed in it and the fact that I was then able to record what I had created and thus take it away with me provided the cherry on the big VR cake.
Other experiences were just as powerful, from Universe Sandbox that enables users to literally ‘play God’ by creating their own galaxies and the like, with celestial bodies even adhering to the laws of physics, to WeVR’s incredible experiences, theBlu that saw me standing on the bow of a sunken ship surrounded by incredible reef life and a whale that slowly swam out of the depths, passing me within touching distance, allowing me to look the beautifully rendered animal in the eye, and it into mine, the scope for becoming utterly and entirely lost in VR was limitless. This latter experience really helped solidify my view of VR as an incredibly powerful empathy generator, with evidence backing up the idea that immersion drives empathy and empathy really drives understanding and action. Can you think of a more powerful framework for effecting real educational outcomes? I can’t. VR enables users to experience, first-hand, albeit in a digitally-rendered simulation, the experiences of others and to put people in situations that they would otherwise not be able to experience either easily or at all. Want to understand what it is like to live in a Syrian refugee camp? Within’s ‘Clouds over Sidra’ achieved this very same thing. What about experiencing life on the streets? Upload created such a VR experience, ‘A Day in the Streets’, to help educate through empathy on the plight of San Francisco’s homeless population. I can imagine how the same approach could be applied to creating a similar experience to simulate the life of a stray dog or cat, or perhaps show what a journey from being owned to abandoned might ‘feel like’ in order to drive empathy and make people think twice about taking on a pet when they are not truly committed to providing a home for life. The potential is limitless and the effect of VR truly impactful. Just ask anyone who has donned a headset themselves.
Even though I spent just a few hours at the Upload Collective they were fascinating, fun and insightful. I could not help but feel as though I was at the epicenter of an exciting new movement in technology, all whilst standing in the undisputed center of the tech universe that is San Francisco. I look forward to getting more and more involved myself and to see where we’re all headed with spatial computing. As virtual as much of the content it, the effects are very real indeed.